Two Spiritually Scarred Landscapes in South Georgia

Scarring takes on many forms. On the human body scars can be physical reminders of accidents or trauma or they can work their way deep into the viscera, affecting emotions, the spirit, or the psyche.

With the physical environment, while we may see the visible degradation of a landscape, but we don’t often consider the spiritual scars that may be left after traumatic events. Ghastly murders, battles, accidents, massacres, and the like rend the spiritual fabric of a place, causing activity that we may deem as beyond the reach of the normal.

In 1977, an intrepid writer published her experiences in a spiritually scarred landscape in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine.

Joined by a brave friend, the writer sat on the marshy edge of Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Georgia as night descended. Intoxicated by the pungent salty odor of the marshes, the thrum of insects, and the calling of marsh birds, the pair began to hear the rhythmic clank of metal. Out of this aural soup the sound of the thwack of bare feet on the muddy creek bank began to rise and soon a descant of chanting began to ring above that rhythm.

The pair could not distinguish the language, but the chanting was filled with pain, despair, and longing for freedom. Frightened out of their wits, the two fled to the safety of their Volkswagen.

This place, known as Ebo Landing, has been known to be haunted since the grim day in May 1803 when a host of Ebo tribesmen drowned themselves rather than submit to the slavery of their new white masters in this strange land.

A scenic view of a marsh on St. Simons Island, by Paul Conklin, 1973. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The tribesmen had been ripped from their homeland in what is now Nigeria and forced to endure the cruel Middle Passage where they were stuffed into the bowels of crude slave ships. Emerging into the sunlight, they were marched onto the auction block in Savannah to be sold in front a sea of white faces.

Having been purchased by representatives of St. Simons Island planters Thomas Spaulding and John Couper, the tribesmen were taken aboard a schooner for transport to their owners’ plantations.

In some versions of the legend during the voyage south, the tribesmen rebelled and, after they threw the crewmen overboard, the ship became grounded at the mouth of Dunbar Creek. Nonetheless, the voyage ended at this lonely, marshy spot.

Still chained together the tribesmen walked into the water chanting to their deity Chukwu, “the Water Spirit brought us here, the Water Spirit will take us home.” Roswell King, the overseer from Pierce Butler’s nearby plantation and subsequently the founder of Roswell, Georgia, wrote of the incident that the men simply, “took to the swamp.”

This collective suicide was not a vainglorious act and it has been enshrined in folklore both in African-American and African culture. Over time, the story has evolved with the tribesmen transforming themselves into birds and flying home. During the Great Depression, a version of this story was documented by the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project. An elderly resident of the island told this version of the story:

Ain’t you heard about them? Well, at that time Mr. Blue he was the overseer and . . . Mr. Blue he go down one morning with a long whip for to whip them good. . . . Anyway, he whipped them good and they got together and stuck that hoe in the field and then . . . rose up in the sky and turned themselves into buzzards and flew right back to Africa. . . . Everybody knows about them.

This fantastic account has been utilized by a number of prominent African-American writers including Toni Morrison.

The Ebo Landing site is still unmarked by any type of sign or monument, though the place remains spiritually scarred and locals still speak of the clanking of chains, the thwack of bare feet in the mud, and the ghostly chanting heard here.

Postcard, circa 1930-45, showing Ebo Landing in the moonlight. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Collection.

The grim specter of slavery has left spiritual scars on the landscape throughout the South. In Effingham County, west of Savannah, is the small town of Springfield. Just outside town, the lazy waters of Ebenezer Creek slowly wend their way among pine and cypress towards the Savannah River.

However, these normally lethargic waters flowed violently and turbulently after heavy rains in December of 1864. After his capture of Atlanta, General Sherman was moving swiftly towards Savannah, which he would offer as a Christmas present to President Lincoln.

Through winter rains that turned Georgia roads into quagmires of red mud, Sherman’s generals cut four swathes through the landscape destroying military targets, industry, and civilian property as they moved. As the blue tide swept through the state, newly freed slaves began to trickle in behind the soldiers. Bound up in the jubilation of freedom, these masses of men, women, and children began to oppress the soldiers’ movements.

General Jefferson Davis, a Union general with no relation to the Confederate President, led the 14th Corps as they slogged through the swamps along the Savannah River. Arriving at the banks of Ebenezer Creek, Davis found the creek at near flood stage. He ordered his engineers to erect a pontoon bridge to allow his men to cross but posted armed sentinels to prevent the refugees from crossing.

Confederates had been dogging the Union invaders and rumors spread that General Joseph Wheeler’s men where rapidly approaching, heightening the urgency to cross the rain-swollen creek.

Irritated by the former slaves slowing his advance, the pro-slavery Union general ordered that the bridge be cut after the last man crossed. The corps’ chaplain described the scene:

There went up from that multitude a cry of agony. Someone shouted, “Rebels,” and they made a wild rush…some of them plunged into the water and swam across. Others ran wildly up and down the bank, shaking with terror.

A private from Minnesota noted that at least a hundred former slaves “huddled as close to the edge of the water as they could get, some crying, some praying, and all fearful that the rebels would come before they could get over.”

Improvising rafts and ropes, many waded out into the water and some made it across, but others were swept into the swift current. Horrified by the scene, soldiers tossed logs and branches into the muddy waters, but could not save all who were pulled downstream.

Some of Wheeler’s men did eventually appear and they fired upon the terrified throng huddled on the creek bank. A few slaves were killed, while many of the others were recaptured and returned to their owners.

Union soldiers, stunned by the bitter scene, reported the incident to their superiors, but General Davis was never brought to justice for his role in the humanitarian crisis.

Just like on the banks of Ebo Landing, locals continue to report spiritual scars among the pines and cypress along Ebenezer Creek. Here, anguished screams and cries are still heard at this spot where so many died trying to wade in the water towards the nebulous promise of freedom.

Sources

  • Davis, Burke. Sherman’s March. NYC: Random House, 1980.
  • Green, Michelle. “Keeping watch at Ibo Landing.” Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine. 30 October 1977.
  • Hobbs, Larry. “Igbo Landing a defiant act for freedom.” The Brunswick News. 22 July 2017.
  • Igbo Landing. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 6 November 2018.
  • Miles, Jim. Civil War Ghosts of Central Georgia and Savannah. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013.
  • Powell, Timothy B. “Ebos Landing.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia. 15 June 2004.
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